By John Rice
District 91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo addressed the district's disappointing PARCC test scores, implementing the iDiscover program to replace study hall and even commented on the notion of year-round schooling on April 11 as he delivered his "State of the District Address" at Betsy Ross School, with about 40 in attendance, including parents, staff and board members.
"I'm a big fan of year-round school," Cavallo said in response to a question about it from the audience. "There are a lot of benefits and it makes a ton of sense." **
He led off the address, though, using a PowerPoint presentation to describe the district's current state. He told attendees that the district's core values come from the community and posed the question, "What's important for Forest Park?"
For several parents, the most important problem was the amount spent per student, in light of the scores on the statewide PARCC exam. "No one was pleased with our results," Cavallo acknowledged. "We did not do well. We need to decide what we're going to do about it." He pointed out, though, that D91 students did better than over half the school districts in Illinois.
After discussing the PARCC scores, Cavallo focused on improvements to the curriculum. He spoke of opportunities for extended learning beyond the classroom and cited the program that enabled Forest Park students to correspond with their counterparts from rural Vermont. He also commended the "shark tank" class that replaced study hall. Groups of students work together to create their own companies and products.
He described how the district is using technology to teach 21st-century skills to the students, advocating the use of Chromebooks and allowing students to take them home. He lauded the district's multi-tiered system of support for students who were struggling.
Cavallo moved on to engaging the community. He celebrated the success of the "Back to School" 5K race for adults and kids and said it would be held again on Aug. 12. He stated that the district's newsletter is mailed out to every household in Forest Park and mentioned the district's revamped website and the launch of a D91 Mobile App to provide alerts to parents.
He also emphasized old-fashioned, face-to-face dialogue with parents, including the opportunity to meet with him during "Coffees with Cavallo" and speaking directly to teachers at parent-teacher conferences.
Cavallo then introduced Assistant Superintendent Ed Brophy to provide an overview of the district's finances. Brophy noted that the district's expenditure per pupil was higher than the state average but noted, "We stretch your dollars as far as we can."
The district's reserves, he added, are not as high as they used to be.
"We spent down our reserves by paying off loans early and not taking on new debt," he said, noting he was proud that the renovation of Betsy Ross was paid for with cash on hand.
However, the budget impasse in Springfield is threatening the financial stability of school districts across the state and is affecting District 91's bottom line as well.
"There's a need for some belt-tightening," Brophy said. "A lot of districts are in dire financial trouble and we have to make sure our reserves don't go too low."
After the presentations, Dr. Cavallo conducted a Q&A with the public. The first question was from a parent asking why there isn't any foreign language component to the district curriculum. Cavallo explained there wasn't enough time in the school day for foreign language instruction. He stated that the district offers after-school language courses that attract a small core group of parents and students. However, another parent countered that there's an interest and need for foreign language classes starting in kindergarten.
Parents also expressed the need for a summer enrichment program. Cavallo said they've tried it in the past and only had two kids sign up. The West Cook YMCA had recently called, he noted, and proposed partnering with D91 to provide an enrichment program. Cavallo said he was encouraged by the call and hopes this will become a reality.
Finally, some of the parents were concerned about student retention.
"Most leave out of concern for the high school," Cavallo admitted, "but I've never been more optimistic about the high school." He cited the victory of the Proviso Together candidates and the sweeping improvements they are already implementing at the Proviso high schools as cause for optimism.
** Clarification from D91 Supt. Louis Cavallo:
"Year-round school was suggested by a parent in the audience at the State of the District Address and I responded with, 'It makes a lot of sense, educationally.' I went on to say, however, that 'I have worked in two other districts where it was implemented and the parents objected and it failed.' Year-round school is not in our current strategic plan. I simply gave my opinion about it to a parent who suggested it." The Forest Park Review regrets the confusion.